And it's at SPEED's studios where I discovered I'd have the honor of taking over Penske's No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Cup car. I certainly didn't have much warning. I'd done the Nationwide race on the Friday, and so I started off that Saturday having breakfast with the kids, and went out for a boat ride on the lake, usual weekend stuff. I had some lunch and then put the girls down for their nap, and then went down to the SPEED studios, just wearing a t-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, because I keep the suit and shoes I need down at the studio.
So we did the show, but they also wanted to tape a little segment for the next day's show, too. I said yeah, sure, but I need to check my phone because I'd felt it vibrating in my pocket during the recording. At that time, SPEED also got a phone call and the message was “Tell Sam to call Walt [Walter Czarnecki, Vice Chairman of Penske Racing] right now.” So I did that, and he said, “Hey, we need you to come down to Daytona, how soon can you be at the airport?” I said, well, I'm almost there, so is 15 minutes OK?” He said yeah, go there now, I'll call you back.
So I have to apologize to the SPEED guys who then want to know what's going on, and at this stage I have no idea what happened but that Penske needs me and I have to rush to the airport. I have a Penske shirt in the closet there at SPEED, but I realize I'll have to stop at a mall because I don't think Roger would appreciate me turning up at Daytona wearing flip-flops. So I do that, and rush even harder to the airport, but actually I have plenty of time; I get the follow up phone call and discover that I'll be driving the No. 22 car instead of A.J. Allmendinger, but I have no idea why, and the plane is going to be there for me in 30 minutes. Well in fact, 45 minutes or an hour went by before I got on the plane and one of the guys from the shop has gone and got all the stuff I needed – seat, shoes, helmet, pedals and everything out of my Nationwide car.
I got my firesuit on in the plane and I fully expected when we popped out of the clouds that I'd be looking down on Daytona and seeing the cars out on track already. I don't know if it's something to do with being a racing driver, but I have this recurring dream maybe 10 times a year – and bear in mind this started back when I was in karting – where I'm supposed to be in a racecar and I can't find my other shoe, or can't find my helmet, or I can't find the car, or I'm in the car and the belts don't fit… Basically, everyone's started the race without me. So, coming into Daytona, I thought, “Oh well, finally this is the day when my nightmare comes true.”
Luckily that wasn't the case, but we landed, and there were six cop cars out on the tarmac with their lights going and I'm thinking, this is different to my normal race day. So my car had a police escort to the Speedway, and someone on a golf cart almost wiped out the two motorcycle cops that were leading us. Somehow they swerved around him and my driver then hit the tunnel doing 50mph, and I tell you, if I hadn't been bracing myself I'd have been up in the headliner of the car!
I hadn't eaten properly or hydrated properly, so I was definitely not as prepared as normal, even though on Daytona Speedway you don't work as hard as you would on a normal track. For speedways, the cars have a lot more apertures sealed to make the car fast so it gets really hot inside – and it was very, very hot down at Daytona that weekend. And then the left-rear tire blows out which ruins our race anyway…
But…I'm back in a Cup car, so who's complaining? It's interesting to now compare the two cars. The extra 250hp that a Cup car has over a Nationwide car does make a big difference in cars that weigh the same. Then the Cup cars also have a little bit less downforce, a little bit less drag, too, so they slide around a lot more and they're harder to get slowed down for the corners. But despite those differences, I feel like some of the things I've learned in Nationwide this year are going to help me with the Cup program.
So despite the unfortunate circumstances of how I got back into a Cup car, I'm happy to get my arms around driving in both series. Any driving experience is going to improve your skills, and that's what it's all about.
Hope you enjoy watching our progress over the next month. Thanks for reading.
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